UPDATE: One of the challenges with new and social media is that while blogs may have important content and report on important issues, most bloggers - and I especially include myself here - are not journalists and are not writing posts in the same way as they would a newspaper story. In the case of this post, I fear I have done a disservice with my speculations about the fate of the important collection of natural history cared for by Millbrook School. I am delighted - and chagrined - to learn that the collection described below has not been discarded or broken up, and that there are wonderful and dedicated faculty working to ensure that what it contains - including the eggs of passenger pigeons - remain a vital, well-documented teaching tool in the new Math and Science Facility. Where and how these items get stored and displayed is now part of a thoughtful and inclusive discussion and I am grateful to Millbrook's Gordie Mackenzie for reaching out to me with information that, indeed, I could have asked about before writing this post. To him, my friend Bruce Rinker, and anyone else alarmed by my concerns about the fate of the school's important natural history collection, I offer my sincere apologies. In the interest of transparency, I will leave the original post as written with this retraction, below, and follow up with a fresh post offering more details of the fascinating plans the school is developing for how to care for and display its collection. Tim Abbott (10/30/2008)
In an earlier age, when the collection of scientific specimens was a pursuit of the well traveled and well heeled, a number of private schools were the beneficiaries of unusual collections of curiosities. I remember the mineral display cases in the science building at St. Andrew's, my high school alma mater, and the custom-built room - no larger than a phone booth - where luminescent rocks glowed in the violet dark. Phillips Academy in Andover has a huge taxidermy collection that
until recently included includes one of the very few remaining skins of the extinct Great Auk, worth a cool $500,000.
Mostly, though, the curiosity cabinet is out of step with modern sensibilities, and as private schools modernize their facilities they often find their collections of pickled adders and musty birds nests have little place in these brave new edifices of learning and prestige.
Back in March, I paid a visit to Millbrook School, where I lived for 14 years as the headmaster's son, and where the basement science labs of the Schoolhouse were a curiosity cabinet of wondrous variety. Its origins were in the early days of the school, and in the 1970s most of the collection was housed in a locked wooden building at Millbrook's Trevor Zoo called the Bird House. There were no living creatures, save perhaps mice, in the Bird House in those days (so called because it was long a station for bird banding activities), but through the darkened windows as a child I would often peer at the mounted heads of great beasts and long rows of display cabinets hiding who knew what marvels.
The Zoo had a renaissance in the 1980s and the Bird House came down. Then a biology teacher named H. Bruce Rinker arrived and made the resurrection of the school's curiosities one of his earliest projects. It was Bruce who recognized the scientific value of the bird's nest collection, who insisted that the glass fronted cabinets with their dark wood and obscure specimens be given display space in the corridors between the science classrooms. His advanced Bio students used carrion beetles to clean the carcasses of animals which passed away at the zoo and then reassembled them for display. He made contact with taxidermists to repair existing specimens and add new ones. The collection of stone native American tools which old farmer Marcy plowed up in the 1st half of the 20th century on school land held my attention when I used to peer into those cases, but also the wings of eagles and the plaster casts of dinosaur fossils that made up just a small part of the school's curiosities. Even a great round of the old Copper Beech tree that grew beside the headmaster's House and died just a couple of years after we departed had an honored place in that wunderkammer.
I made the trip to the basement of the schoolhouse last Spring in full knowledge that its time was drawing to a close. The school was constructing a massive, modern Math and Science building on open ground where once my grandfather had umpired Twilight League baseball games in Latin, and where in the mid 1980's a student named Lisa Magadini had planted a formal herb garden. Change comes to all things and this new facility can boast a gold level LEED certification for its many green design features, but I was fairly certain that the continuance of the curiosity cabinet atmosphere for the school's natural history specimens was unlikely to be among them.
In August, before school resumed, the kids and I paid a visit to the Schoolhouse basement and found little evidence of the curiosity cabinet it had been until recently. There was still a bear skeleton hanging from one wall and the Marcy artifact collection as well, but nearly everything else was gone. We wandered over to the new building, a place of light and metal and stone, not dark wood and dusty glass. We saw one or two taxidermy antelope heads near faculty offices and classrooms, possibly a personal decoration choice by the teachers but not in any way representing a collection.
Down in the lowest level, however, we discovered a trove of taxidermy specimens: those that were really museum quality and nearly all thanks to Bruce Rinker's care and stewardship. The bison and boar's heads and a mounted bird or two are likely destined for a clean, classy, conventional and doubtless very static display. Gone are the jars of formaldehyde horrors, the student projects of wire and bone. It may well be progress, but there is little educational about it. And while the shabby sideshow attributes of the old specimen display cases may have lost their educational value as well, they still had the capacity to evoke an earlier time, where the past was right there, in a drawer or perched on a shelf, just a fingertip away.